How do we know if a community is thriving?

Observations from the Indicator Explorer Database
Megan Juelfs-Swanson

“What does it mean and take for a community to thrive?”

This is the central question for Thriving Cities. We ask ourselves this question every day. When we travel, we ask our Uber drivers, our partners, and the people we meet on the street. I love the way this question invites people to dream about the future, and provides an opportunity for people to talk about the things they find important.

However, as a data analyst, this question is not enough. The second question for me is always, “How would we know that this community is thriving?” and “How do we know that the thriving in this community is accessible to all members?” These are the questions that animate my work at Thriving Cities.

For me, the answers to these questions always come down to evidence, and often that evidence is quantitative. (We see evidence as more than numbers; we’ll talk more about that in the future. But please explore our community field guide or case studies to see how we draw on multiple kinds of evidence).

Our search for evidence drove us to spend the last two years exploring how other community groups think about the health and well-being of their communities. This week we released our Indicator Explorer, an interactive web tool which highlights the most popular indicators* used by community indicator projects and situates them within our human ecology framework and current academic research.

To collect the data that powers the Indicator Explorer we used the Community Indicators Consortium member list as a sampling frame. This allows us to make generalizable statements about community indicator projects. For complete details of the process see our methods page and our FAQ page.

What is a “normal” project?

Our research surveyed more than 100 indicator projects, and it is clear that there is no ‘normal’ indicator project. The sample includes projects focused on community trust and social cohesion, health disparities within communities, youth education, environmental sustainability, and the general livability of a community. Each project, with their different area of focus, chooses their indicators based on their stated purpose, so there is no universally-used set of indicators.

In addition, projects also range in their indicator depth, with some tracking less than a dozen and other running into the hundreds.

The focus of the project also, to a certain extent, drives its size. StriveTogether focuses on moving every child from cradle to career. The Boston Indicators Project is focused on the health and well-being of Boston writ large, although most general indicator projects aren’t that large. Minnesota Compass, for example, has 81 indicators; Capital Region Collaborative has 38 indicators.

Indicator Overload

One of the surprising findings from the survey process was the sheer number of indicators being used by community projects. Our sample of just over 100 projects generated more than 3,300 indicators. Of this, 72 percent were used in just one project. Only 5 percent of indicators appear in more than ten projects.

The most popular indicators across all projects include unemployment rate (48 projects), poverty (37 projects), violent crime (36 projects), high school graduation rate (31 projects), and median household income (30 projects).

However, even the most popular indicators aren’t necessarily common. Unemployment, the most popular indicator, appears in less than half of the indicator projects.

There are at least two reasons why popular indicators are not common:

  1. Given the variety of project foci, projects often only use indicators directly tied to their area of interest. The StriveTogether partnership, with their focus on cradle to career, is looking at high school graduation. It is not looking at unemployment or violent crime, as those are areas outside of their focus.

  2. There is widespread lack of agreement on the best way to measure an idea. For example, most experts agree that the Federal Poverty Measure is inadequate for capturing limited economic resources and its attendant challenges. In the absence of other clearly identified alternatives, indicator groups measure child poverty, cost-burdened households, concentrated poverty, or a host of other options. This lack of agreement contributes to the higher number of indicators and can present comparability challenges for projects looking to benchmark with other key projects.

Why so many unique indicators?

Despite the lack of repetition of the most popular indicators, most community indicator projects are using similar indicators. StriveTogether, with their 11 education-oriented indicators, have no unique indicators. Even for the Boston Indicator Project, with 255 indicators, roughly half of their indicators (47 percent) are unique to their project.

For many of the projects, the unique indicators are tied to a point of community pride or institutional priority. For example, the Capital Region Collaborative, focusing on Richmond, Virginia, prioritizes the James River, a point of community pride, and wants to make it “the centerpiece of entertainment, recreation, and commerce.” Their project includes the “James River Report Card” to address this priority.

The Measurability of Thriving?

While every community wants to thrive, it is difficult to really know if a community is thriving. Each indicator project or community initiative has slightly different ways of defining, and thus measuring, what it would mean for a community to thrive. The concept of thriving may be universal, but the reality is particularistic. Any attempt at measuring thriving needs to take into account the vision of thriving within a community. That is, evidence of thriving is most accurate when it demonstrates that a community is meeting the goals it has set for itself.

Talk to us!

While we’re excited to release the Indicator Explorer, we’re already working on new filter options and other content that we will debut in the coming months. If you want to provide us with feedback on what you’d like to see for the future of the Indicator Explorer, please fill out this form. Also, sign up for our newsletter to be alerted about new features.

Finally, we know that research is always evolving. If you know of research we should include, contact us. Also, if you want to debate an academic strength rating, we’d love to hear that, too.


*In the context of community indicator projects, an indicator is the question one asks to assess the health and well-being of a community. For example, the question, “how people in this community live in poverty?” An indicator project is a community-specific initiative to measure the health and well-being of that community. Some projects are sponsored by local municipal offices while others are conducted by local universities or non-profits. One example of a community indicator project is the Capital Region Collaborative in the Richmond, Virginia, metro area. It is tracking 38 indicators across a number of priority areas (including education, job creation, and transportation coordination). The CRC is committed to bringing together government, businesses, and community stakeholders to created a shared vision for the Richmond Region.